Louisiana House panel OKs Pastor Protection bill _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD – Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday that wording changes made it possible for him to support a bill that would protect pastors who, based on their religious beliefs, refuse to marry same sex couples. He made the comment in his office after announcing that Louisiana received a $1.7 million disaster assistance grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. He is speaking to Christopher Lu, deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Labor. Louisiana Workforce Commission Executive Director Ava Dejoie is to the governor’s right.

The so-called Pastor Protection Act, which is intended to shield clergy and religious leaders from being penalized for refusing to conduct same-sex marriages, passed its first hurdle in the Louisiana Legislature on Tuesday, advancing past a House committee in a 7-3 vote.

State Rep. Mike Johnson, a Bossier City Republican, said his bill is not the anti-gay marriage legislation that opponents are making it out to be. And he said it doesn’t go nearly as far as his proposed law from last year called the “Louisiana Marriage and Conscience Act,” which would have prevented the state from penalizing businesses who deny service to gay and lesbian consumers based on their religious beliefs.

In the wake of last year’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, which recognized same-sex marriage across the nation, Johnson stressed that House Bill 597 applies to churches, ministers and the like, in the event that they are ever in a position where they are compelled to conduct same-sex marriages to which they religiously object.

“It’s a measure designed so a religious leader can’t be forced to oversee a wedding if they have a sincerely held religious objection,” Johnson said. “It offers a basic level of protection for a fundamental right of conscience.”

While opponents said it was redundant, since state and federal laws already protect clergy, Johnson said the same-sex marriage ruling could result in new interpretations that could break down those pre-existing protections.

Still, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights advocates are highly skeptical of the bill, which Johnson described as “harmless.” Opponents said the bill was an offensive knee-jerk reaction to the legalization of same-sex marriage that will send an anti-LGBT message on behalf of the state.

Dylan Waguespack, of Louisiana Progress, said the law could be used as a veil by businesses and nonprofits to deny services to married LGBT couples, for example if a Catholic hospital wanted to deny extending health insurance or retirement benefits to the spouse of someone in a same-sex marriage.

But Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday he supported the bill in its current form, noting that Johnson agreed to amend language that kept the bill more narrow in its scope.

“I don’t believe it is necessary; it does no harm,” Edwards said, commenting that it was redundant legislation like wearing “belts and suspenders.” “There are no pastors under threat of anything happening should they not want to marry someone of the opposite sex or officiate over any wedding that happens to violate some articles of faith that they have.”

State Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, said he was concerned about the timing and the message of the bill, since other states being perceived as passing anti-LGBT bills are seeing business deals threatened.

“What about the message it’s sending at a time right now where Mississippi is under fire, Georgia’s under fire, North Carolina’s under fire and big ticket items are not coming to the state?” said Magee, who ended up voting in favor of the bill. “What message are we sending to the rest of the state in terms of Louisiana being open for business?”

Recently, Bruce Springsteen announced he was canceling a concert in North Carolina because of anti-LGBT legislation passed and PayPal canceled plans to build a global operations center, which would have created 400 jobs, in that state. Meanwhile, the Georgia governor recently vetoed a similar bill which would have protected clergy, faith-based organizations and their employees from litigation for refusing a same-sex wedding, among other services.

The veto came after multi-national corporations and heavy hitters in the film industry threatened to boycott the state.

Opponents of HB597 told the House Civil Law committee Tuesday that the controversial Georgia bill started out with the s exact language as Johnson’s bill and was amended along the legislative process. The measure goes to the full House for a vote.

“I do have a concern that though we have started here, we will not end here,” said Matthew Patterson, of Equality Louisiana.

To that end, Johnson promised to oppose any amendments that aimed to broaden the scope of his bill beyond churches and religious organizations overseeing marriages.

After the committee vote, Johnson sat down with opponents and said he was open to negotiating the language of the bill so it was clear he was not trying to subversively allow businesses and nonprofits to deny gay and lesbian couples services.

Johnson, who is running for U.S. Congress, said he was trying to avoid the fanfare of last year’s bill, which was ultimately killed in committee. The bill gained national attention and after it died, former Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an executive order that aimed to carry out the bill anyway.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.